Ranking the Daytona 500s of the Last Thirty 30 Years; 26-30

2000 Daytona 500

Dale Jarrett captures his third Daytona 500. Only Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough have more

Dale Jarrett captures his third Daytona 500. Only Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough have more

Rules had been changed prior to the 2000 season for NASCAR’s restrictor plate races, and the result was one of the most boring Daytona 500’s in the sports history. For a race that in years since has seen as many as 74 lead changes, a pass for the lead under green flag conditions simply was not going to happen on this particular Sunday. In fact, for the duration of Speed Weeks, the only passes made for the lead were made immediately after a restart.

None of this of course diminishes what Dale Jarrett and his Robert Yates team accomplished. The defending Winston Cup Champion and two time Daytona 500 winner had been the class of the field all week, so it was probably appropriate that he still won the Daytona 500. The only race that Jarrett did not win that week his Gatorade 125 mile qualifier, as he finished 2nd to Bill Elliott, who took the lead on the opening lap and never relinquished it. Jarrett though had already won the pole for the Daytona 500, and won the Bud Shootout as well.

The race was perhaps best known for the frustration and anger expressed afterwards by Mark Martin. With 14 laps to go, Martin was running second to surprise leader Johnny Benson when he made his move to the outside of Benson’s pontiac in turns one and two. Martin was under the impression that Jarrett, along with fellow Ford drivers Jeff Burton and Elliott, would go with him. Martin was wrong.

Jarrett bailed on Martin, and Burton and Elliott had no choice but to follow Jarrett through on the inside, moving Jarrett to the runner up spot in a position to challenge Benson himself. On a restart with just a handful of laps to go, Jarrett would get underneath Benson coming off of turn two and the Ford contingency, including Martin would follow.

The race only had nine lead changes, and just four over the duration of the final 165 laps in an event that would lead Dale Earnhardt to tell reporters that, “Bill France Sr. probably rolled over in his grave if he saw that”. Ironically, it would be this race that would prompt NASCAR to look into a new rules package for future plate events, and it would be those changes in the rules packages that helped contribute to the events of the 2001 Daytona 500.

29. 1992 Daytona 500

Only two of these cars would remain intact for the finish, robbing us of what could have been a thrilling Daytona 500

Only two of these cars would remain intact for the finish, robbing us of what could have been a thrilling Daytona 500

Personally, this probably ranks as my least favorite Daytona 500, ever. I wasn’t but 7 years old at the time, but I think this particular race was the first time I ever wished death upon another human being, or said so aloud anyway.

This year marked the first year that my parents hosted a Daytona 500 party as well, and I remember many of my parents friends and some of their children at the house. I remember being very excited for this particular Daytona 500 as well. My favorite driver, Bill Elliott, had qualified on the outside poll and had won his Gatorade 125 Mile Qualifier on Thursday in his first time out driving for Junior Johnson. It was the first time in his career that Elliott had driven for a team other than the family outfit in Dawsonville, and it was off to a smashing success. Throw in the fact that the last time the circuit had come to Daytona in July of 1991 Elliott had been victorious, and I was feeling awfully good about his chances on this Sunday.

This race also marked the final Daytona 500 for Richard Petty, the undisputed “King” of the sport. By the halfway point of the race, both feel good stories were over.

Elliott and teammate Sterling Marlin (the pole sitter) dominated the early portion of the race, leading a combined 56 of the first 91 laps, with Davey Allison leading 28 thanks to a two tire pit stop. In other words, the Junior Johnson cars were the class of the field, and the world knew it.

But on lap 92 everything changed. First Marlin made a move on Elliott, then Irvan made a move on Marlin at the exit of turn two putting the three three abreast across the track. Calamity ensued. Just about anyone who had any chance of winning this race, and certainly anyone who I cared about winning, was involved. Pick a name, Martin, Earnhardt, Petty, Jarrett, Waltrip, Wallace, any of them, they were involved. The only three cars of consequence not involved were Allison, Morgan Shepherd, and Michael Waltrip. Every other contender was eliminated.

I remember crawling up on to my mom’s lap in absolute tears, yelling, “I wanna kill him, I wanna kill him”. The “him” I was referring to was Ernie Irvan. Two years ago at Darlington, while multiple laps in arrears, Irvan had caused a massive crash that effectively ended the career of Neil Bonnet. A year later, Irvan once again caused a massive crash, this time at Talladega, resulting in Kyle Petty suffering a broken leg. Needless to say, Irvan’s nickname of “Swervin Irvan” was well deserved. Unfortunately, this would not be the final time his wreckless and aggressive driving style would cause a problem.

In any event, the accident left Davey Allison with virtually no competition. He easily led all but 10 of the remaining 109 laps on his way to a Daytona 500 victory. In a season where Elliott lost the championship by a mere 10 points, I think one can see why I’m still very bitter about this race.

28. 2009 Daytona 500

Matt Kenseth won the first of two career Daytona 500s in 2009, and it's almost like nobody knows he even has one

Matt Kenseth won the first of two career Daytona 500s in 2009, and it’s almost like nobody knows he even has one

The previously mentioned two Daytona 500s may not have been a very good show to watch, but for their own reasons, they were at least memorable, even if not for something positive. The same cannot be said of the 2009 Daytona 500.

For starters, this was the third Daytona 500 I’d been to in person, and it was the third time I’d been treated to poor weather. So things were already off to a bad start.

Secondly, Kyle Busch led 88 of the races first 120 laps, and if you know anything about my fandom in NASCAR, you know I harbor an extreme dislike of the Busch boys.

Third, the race itself ultimately wound up being affected by the weather. Rain cut it short after just under 400 miles.

Fourth, the winner, well, he’s about as interesting as a manilla folder. It’s not that I have anything against Matt Kenseth, but he’s not exactly the big name you’re looking to see win if your guy can’t.

As mentioned, Kyle Busch led 88 of the first 120 laps, so I suppose it could have been worse. I could have been forced to watch him win the thing, as it certainly appeared that was going to be the case. However, after a caution on lap 120, Busch found himself out of the lead after pit-stops. And soon after, he found himself out of the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr had already been having a bad day, the issues ranged from picking the wrong lines in traffic, to errors on pit road, to driver mistakes getting on and off pit-road. Apparently the frustrations affected his driving, and on the restart Earnhardt triggered a massive wreck on the backstretch that took out Busch, ending his day early.

Eventually on the restart, Matt Kenseth would work his way around Elliott Sadler, and when the rain fell following a caution for Eric Almirola with Kenseth leading, his place in Daytona history was secure.

27. 2004 Daytona 500

Few Daytona 500 wins were as popular as Junior's in 2004

Few Daytona 500 wins were as popular as Junior’s in 2004

Did I mention I was three for three when it came to bad weather at the Daytona 500? Fortunately, the race itself wasn’t impacted by weather in 2004, and in fact, once the show got going, the day turned out to be quite nice. But it didn’t start that way. I distinctly remember having to use my shirt as a koozie so my hands wouldn’t freeze while holding my beer can before the race got going.

Once underway though, the race was anything but exciting. A big crash on the backstretch where Michael Waltrip first unveiled his new roof hatch exit was about it for the excitement of the day.

Tony Stewart used the 2004 Daytona 500 to put into full-gear his apparent quest to join Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip as multi-time NASCAR champions who could win any and everything at Daytona, but for years, be unable to claim a Daytona 500 trophy for themselves.

Dale Earnhardt Jr led the first 29 laps, and the last 20. In between though, Stewart led 98 of 151 laps, and during that stretch, the nine laps led by Jimmie Johnson from laps 44-52 were the most consecutive laps led by anyone not in an orange chevrolet.

The race itself saw the final caution flag fly on lap 72 with the previously mentioned massive pile-up on the back stretch being the final wreck of the day. That, coupled with a rules package that much major emphasis on tire wear, resulted in the field becoming exceptionally spread out.

In fact, for the first time in about ten years, there was no lead “pack” fighting it out for the win. It was just Earnhardt and Stewart. Earnhardt had followed Stewart for much of the mid to late portion of the race, but with twenty to go, and with Stewart’s tires fading, Earnhardt seized the lead and never let it go. In fact, Stewart hardly even was able to put up much of a fight, doing all he could just to keep Earnhardt’s Budweiser chevrolet within reach.

For Earnhardt, winning the Daytona 500 obviously carried special meaning, and perhaps due to that and the popularity of his  victory, this could be ranked a little higher. But those things don’t make up for the fact that the race itself really stunk.

26. 1995 Daytona 500

Sterling Marlin became just the third man to ever win back to back Daytona 500s, joining Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.

Sterling Marlin became just the third man to ever win back to back Daytona 500s, joining Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.

Not since the Elliotts in the 80s had anyone been as dominant at Talladega and Daytona as Sterling Marlin and his Kodak Chevrolet were during the mid 90s. If there was a restrictor plate race to be run, you could bet your bottom dollar that Marlin and his bunch were going to be among the favorites. The Runt Pittman built engines in Marlin’s cars even sounded different, in addition to clearly just being better than anything else on the track.

The year before, Marlin had won his first career race, in the 1994 Daytona 500, marking the 2nd time (Ernie Irvan, 1991) in four years that the Morgan-McClure Racing team had won the Daytona 500. Marlin didn’t visit victory lane again that season, and finished only 14th in the final points standings. He did however finish in the top ten of both Talladega races and also led six laps in the July race at Daytona.

In 1995 however Marlin and the team would take steps to becoming a more complete team, and a true championship contender. And it started with the Daytona 500.

Marlin’s victory in the 1995 Daytona 500 was the most thorough victory by anyone in the Daytona 500 since Bill Elliott’s wins in 1985 and 1987. A late caution and mini-charge after getting on four fresh tires by Dale Earnhardt were the only things keeping things interesting, and even then, you had to force yourself to believe Earnhardt had any real shot at getting by Marlin.

I remember running across Bill Elliott at an autograph signing a few days after the race, and I asked Elliott if he hadn’t had a flat tire that cost him a lap if he’d had anything for Earnhardt and Marlin. His reply, “We coulda beat Earnhardt, but I don’t know about Marlin”. In other words, the four car was in a whole ‘nother zip code.

Marlin though wasn’t entirely alone in that zip code however. A flat tire didn’t only claim Bill Elliott, it also eliminated the only car that looked like it could run with Marlin; Jeff Gordon. Gordon suffered a flat tire, and on the pit stop to change tires also had the car slightly roll off the jack curling back the left front fender behind the wheel. Those two things combined were enough to eliminate Gordon from contention as he, like Elliott, was never able to make up the lap he’d lost while dealing with his tire issues. Gordon was however, the only guy not named Marlin to lead more than 23 laps. In fact, Gordon led 61 of the races first 98 laps.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t Gordon chasing Marlin at the finish, and we were denied a battle between the two best cars on the track, as with Gordon and Marlin leading a combined 166 of 200 laps, we were also denied a show worthy of watching at all.

There were only two green flag passes made for the lead all race long, both of them coming when Dale Earnhardt was passed by Sterling Marlin. Marlin passed him on lap three, and then passed him for good on lap 181. In between, every lead change came during a caution period. Thrilling right?

Earnhardt’s continued quest to finally snare a Daytona 500 was at this point, reason alone to watch any Daytona 500, and the fact that he made something resembling a charge at Marlin late in the going is pretty much all that keeps this from ranking as perhaps the worst Daytona 500 of the last thirty years.

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